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Deeper Learning? Marketing, Personal Data and Privacy after Surveillance Capitalism

Organization

Queen’s University

Published

2022

Project leader(s)

David Murakami Wood and Stephen Thomas

Summary

In 2020, Google announced their intention to move away from unpopular, privacy-invasive third-party cookies for targeted marketing. They created an experimental “privacy sandbox” from which several products were released. The first was “Federated Learning of Cohorts” (FLoC), Google’s AI-driven replacement for third-party cookies. However, FLoC was cut in January 2022 and replaced by “Topics API” and “First Locally Executed Decision over Groups Experiment” (FLEDGE).

This research examined FLoC’s background and ambitions and created a computer simulation to test three claims: 1. users with similar—but not identical—browsing habits would be assigned to the same cohort ID (found true); 2. a bad actor could not infer user details given the user’s cohort ID (found not entirely true); and 3. cohort IDs retain anonymity for individual users (found not true). The research went on to consider Topics API and FLEDGE and how the Personal Information Protection and Electronic Documents Act (PIPEDA) and the European Union’s General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) might impact all three products. The researchers argue that GDPR played a role in FLoC being cancelled, but PIPEDA is ill-equipped to deal with the complexities of new marketing technologies.

While Google is nowhere near ready to end targeted marketing, federated learning is still planned for many other products, from Google, Apple and Microsoft to Amazon, so regulators need to increase their expertise on cutting-edge AI-driven techniques. The researchers also believe that federated learning could be more privacy-centric, but no practice is—in itself—better or more justified by virtue of being for training AI. Online marketing is also likely to (re)turn to less privacy-invasive and data-reliant techniques, such as contextual advertising and, according to the researchers, regulators need to keep a closer eye on future innovations in this domain.

Project deliverables are available in the following language(s)

English

OPC-funded project

This project received funding support through the Office of the Privacy Commissioner of Canada’s Contributions Program. The opinions expressed in the summary and report(s) are those of the authors only and do not necessarily reflect those of the Office of the Privacy Commissioner of Canada. Summaries have been provided by the project authors. Please note that the projects appear in their language of origin.

Contact information

David Murakami Wood
Department of Criminology, Faculty of Social Sciences
University of Ottawa
120 University Private
Room 14002, Social Sciences Building
Ottawa, Ontario K1N 6N5
Email: David Murakami Wood
Phone: 613-562-5303

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